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Pragmatics and theory of mind in older adults’ humor comprehension

Abstract

Jokes understanding is an important part of people’s social life, especially in aging. However, little is known about older adults’ humor understanding and the role of the cognitive skills underpinning social communication, mainly pragmatics and theory of mind (ToM). To fill this gap, we created the Phonological and Mental Jokes (PMJ) task, a fine-grained task distinguishing two types of jokes based on the mentalistic load. The PMJ task was administered, together with the Assessment of Pragmatic Abilities and Cognitive Substrates (APACS) test for pragmatics and the Strange Stories for ToM, to 147 older adults (age-range 60–85). Through structural equation modeling (SEM), we analyzed: i) the latent structure of the PMJ task; ii) the relationships between humor comprehension, pragmatics, and ToM, controlling for other background variables (vocabulary, education, and age). Results revealed a two-latent-factor model for the PMJ task, which separated phonological from mental jokes. Furthermore, pragmatic skills predicted humor comprehension irrespective of the type of joke, whereas the relationship between humor understanding and ToM skills was specific, being significant for mental, but not for phonological, jokes. These results suggest that humor understanding is part of the larger pragmatic competence of older adults and that it may additionally tax ToM skills when reasoning about the mental states of the joke’s characters is required. These findings pave the way to a lifespan consideration of humor in social communication and add to the debate over the relationship between pragmatics and ToM, showing the different role of these abilities in humor.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We used the term “phonological” in a broad sense, referring to humorous modifications of the expected word affecting both the phonological and morphological level. Following the general definition of pun as an utterance’s phrasing that presents two interpretations framed in sound ambiguity (Dynel 2010), our phonological jokes can be defined as imperfect puns (Zwicky and Zwicky 1986) or heterophony (Hempelmann 2004), as the punning words and the expected words are similar in sounds but only partially overlapped, with changes at the phonological and morphological levels. For an account of punning in the General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) framework, see (Attardo 1994; Hempelmann 2004); for an account in the Relevance Theory framework, see (Dynel 2010; Yus 2008). For a broader perspective on humor in sound structure, see (Menninghaus et al. 2014).

  2. 2.

    Humorousness and funniness are two different notions: the former can be defined as a binary category referring to the stimulus’s theoretical capacity to induce a humorous response or not, while the latter is a gradable category referring to the individual appreciation of a humorous stimulus (Dynel 2009). Although the two notions differ, given the difficulty of assessing humorousness with external criteria, we used funniness as a way to determine whether our stimuli could be considered jokes, specifically by verifying whether humorous endings were funnier than straightforward endings. This is in line with previous literature that used funniness ratings for the purpose of materials’ selection (Samson et al. 2008; Uekermann et al. 2006).

  3. 3.

    The joke that was removed was the following (English translation from Italian):

    “A few days after the Christmas holidays two girlfriends meet for a coffee.

    One of them says: “Notwithstanding feasts and dinners, it was not so hard to wear my usual pants”.

    The three endings were as follows:

    Humorous: “And she continues: “Though, I should thank my grandma for sewing them up on the hips”;

    Straightforward: “And she continues: “Though, I should thank my grandma for enlarging them on the hips”;

    Unrelated: “And she continues: “Though, I should thank my grandma for photographing them on the hips”.

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Acknowledgments

The work was supported by the MIUR (Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca) PRIN (Progetti di Ricerca di Rilevante Interesse Nazionale) 2015 project “The Interpretative Brain: Understanding and Promoting Pragmatic Abilities across Lifespan and in Mental Illness,” project code 201577HA9M, awarded to VB and SL.

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VB, SL, and EC designed the research and interpreted the results jointly, being responsible for pragmatic aspects (VB), theory of mind aspects (SL), aging aspects (EC); LB constructed the materials of the PMJ task, contributed to assessment and to first drafting of the manuscript; IC run the analysis, contributed to assessment and to first drafting of manuscript; VB finalized the writing of the manuscript; SL and EC revised the manuscript. All authors contributed to the final version of the manuscript with important intellectual contents.

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Correspondence to Valentina Bambini.

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Bischetti, L., Ceccato, I., Lecce, S. et al. Pragmatics and theory of mind in older adults’ humor comprehension. Curr Psychol (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-019-00295-w

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Keywords

  • Jokes
  • Aging
  • Experimental pragmatics
  • Mindreading
  • Social communication
  • Theory of mind